The Slatest

U.S. Officials Bracing for Imminent North Korea Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Test

Trump and Kim shake hands.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before a meeting in the Demilitarized Zone on June 30.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Military and intelligence officials are nervously keeping close tabs on activity in North Korea as they prepare for what many experts believe will be a major missile test in the near future. That test could very well be of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach U.S. shores. And for now, all officials are able to do is wait and hope for the best as they “appear resigned to the fact that President Trump has no good options to stop it,” reports the New York Times.

Pyongyang has promised to deliver a “Christmas gift” if there is no progress on easing up on sanctions. But any movement on that front seems nearly impossible at this stage, considering talks with Washington have stalled and the North Korean regime is once again insulting President Donald Trump regularly. As tensions with North Korea increase, and especially if there is a test around the holidays, it would mark a huge blow to one of Trump’s major foreign policy initiatives. And it would happen right as he gears up for the presidential campaign. Some North Korea experts say Pyongyang may be watching the electoral calendar as well. There is speculation that Kim could be using “Trump’s intense focus on his re-election next November as leverage to pressure him into lifting sanctions and striking a deal that favors Pyongyang,” notes Politico. The impeachment proceedings may also make Pyongyang feel that Trump is particularly vulnerable.

If the test does happen, it seems clear how the administration will react. Even though Trump used to cite suspensions of tests as a sign that his efforts at diplomacy with Kim were working, officials now say a test will show the North Korean leader feels cornered, with few options as to how to proceed.

There is uncertainty about what North Korea may even test, with some speculating that it may be a satellite on a long-range booster rather than a long-range missile, notes CNN. CBS News talks to intelligence officials who say that while a short-range missile test or rocket engine test could happen at any time, a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile test is unlikely before the beginning of the year.

Kim traditionally delivers a New Year’s address and could use that opportunity to declare that he has grown tired of waiting for diplomacy to work and launch a missile. For now, officials are saying they are ready for whatever may come their way. “North Korea has indicated a variety of things … so we are prepared for whatever” Pyongyang may do, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said. For Trump, however, an escalation of tensions with North Korea will leave him choosing between bad options. The Times explains:

He could reprise his alarming threats of military action from late 2017, infusing the 2020 election year with a sense of crisis, which could cost him votes—and risk real conflict.

Or he could endure the new provocation and double down, betting that greater sanctions could somehow force the North to abandon its decades-long course toward a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the continental United States.